The Titan: Finger of Fate
It's deep rooted, the music of being young and dumb. - K.Dot
None of the three of us had ever aid climbed before, nor had we ever ascended a rope. And with that, The Titan is the tallest freestanding desert tower in the United States. Its looms a shear 900' over the rest of the Fisher Towers. For my New York homies, that's just about the Chrysler Building. Despite being a member of Steck & Roper's 50 Classic Climbs of North America, it seems the tower sees only about seven successful attempts per year. The rock quality is relatively horrible, just bad enough to incite doubt about nearly every piece of protection placed. I'm sure there is worse, but it was the shittiest rock I'd ever climbed.
Like many of the best adventures, the idea to climb Finger of Fate was a joke until it wasn't. The thought came up often and drunkenly between Joey and Charlie for over a year. And it was funny in that theoretical way for a while until we got to the base of the route and the nature of the humor changed. What was once a comedy of hyperbole, magnification, exaggeration, settled quickly into a comedy of nervousness, cynicism, and fear. Holy fuck!
That was the scariest climb I've ever done. - Janelle Smiley
I'm not going to build up this experience to something that it wasn't. What ensued was a climb that humbled us all. It ruined our hands. We left blood everywhere. The first few belays sucked. We all learned to aid climb and ascend ropes well enough. My first aid pitch was C2+ on horrible rock. I screamed more on the C2F roof pitch than I ever have climbing anything, ever. We were cold the entire time. It was scary at moments, but despite all of the ridiculousness I think we made smart and conservative decisions given the situation we'd put ourselves in. We didn't make it to the summit, but holy shit, it was a time.
[Aid Rating Reference at bottom.]
[Note: This is how we chose to break down the pitches for the climb. There are many ways to skin a cat.]
P1 (5.8 C1, 130')
Joey led this with only one aider. It was some tough mixed aid and free climbing. He skipped the intermediate anchor and continued to the next set about 130' off the deck. It took a long time, maybe 2.5 hours. Before Charlie followed up pulling on gear etc. I left on the 1 hour hike back to get dinner because we thought we may sleep out there. I chose to rappel off the West side of the saddle below the Titan to cut off the big hike around. There are anchors visible about 200' back from the start of the climb. Its a 200' and then 50' rappel to the ground. After I left Charlie followed Joey up to the first hanging belay and then left off on his pitch.
P2 (5.7 C2, 80')
Charlie led this and said it scared him more than anything he'd done. It looked like hard aid. Some call it C2, some C2+...in another place its marked A3, whatever, it was sketchy. A few hours later he'd made it 80' higher, fixed a line to the anchor and rappelled down to Joey. They then both rappelled to the ground on another fixed line.
By the end of the first day we'd fixed ropes up the first and second pitches for a total of about 210' of upward movement over a lot of hours.
When I finally got back to the base of the climb around 5:30pm Joey and Charlie were just getting down. The sun was nice and we sat and talked. Our roommate Kat and her friend Peter had hiked out to watch and bring us sleeping gear and food. It was nice to have a big group of people with the sun low. I made a bunch of Kraft Mac n' Cheese with broccoli. There was a freeze warning for the night and, although Kat had made such a nice effort to bring us enough to crash at the Titan, one sleeping bag wasn't going to work for the three of us at 32 degrees. It didn't make sense to sleep out there...so we walked back to the trailhead.
The sun was setting over the Colorado on the hike back. The stars were coming out in the parking lot. We shotgunned some PBRs and went to sleep.
We got up at 6:00am and I made eggs, potatoes, broccoli, and coffee. We ate and chugged water and got on the trail and were at the base by 8:30am. We spent about 15 minutes solving the puzzle of how to use rope ascenders and I was off. Up the first fixed line to the hanging belay, I sent the ascenders down to Charlie who followed. I ascended the next line and when I got there tied into the end of the rope that was fixed. From the previous belay (only 80' below) Charlie put me on belay and I was on lead loaded with gear.
P3 (5.8 C2+, 70')
My first aid pitch ever. It was dubious and convinced me of something I'd never understood before, that aid climbing is badass. It is more mental than free climbing. Its a fucking puzzle and its fucking awesome. I cannot even fathom what an A4 pitch looks like, but people do it. Some people climb A5? What? Anyway, for some reason this pitch didn't even feel exposed because I was so focused on the gear. Gear, gear, gear...plug a piece, attach the aid ladder, move up as high as you can on it, and pray the piece stays in. At one point I placed a very marginal #4 nut and then an even more marginal #1 cam on top of it. The purpose of the cam being only to hold the nut in place, not to actually be protection at all. It was scary. I think I'm hooked on aid.
P4 (5.8 C2F, 50')
This felt like the next chapter of the climb. The first three pitches are essentially stacked one on top of another ending in a reasonably nice ledge pictured above. From here the climb traverses right at 5.6 about 30' past a very old three-pack of pitons to a roof that cuts off the wall about 500' off the ground. Its exposed AF. Graciously assisting the passing of the roof is a bolt from the 80's and two stuck tricams. One of them should hold, right? Every time I grabbed one of the tricam slings about a pound of sand would flow into my eyes and mouth. It was delightful. I worked hard here using some aid trickery I learned from YouTube (shouts out to Chris McNamara) about how to top-step on aid roofs using a quickdraw. Thanks internet. I yelled a lot, but eventually solved the puzzle for my small 5'7" frame without dying. We'd made it to the backside of The Finger.
P5 (5.8 C1, 80') & P6 (5.8, 90')
Joey led these as one long pitch. P5 is short and pretty full on 5.8+ chimney or C0 climbing that ends in a 3 bolt belay before The Duck. P6 traverses the left side of The Duck on a very exposed and relatively unprotected sandy sloping ledge that you have to freakily lower yourself onto. It climbs at 5.MENTAL. On the other side of The Duck is a jungle of bolts at the start of the descent route, and about 20' higher is the bivvy ledge with another jungle of bolts of various generations.
We got to the bivvy ledge at about 4:30pm. Two pitches left, one of (maybe) C2 climbing and then one of (maybe) A0 bolt ladder put in my Layton Kor who was 6'4" so not really a bolt ladder...then some 4th class to the summit. With only another 3 hours of sunlight we decided to turn around. I called Miguel's Baja Grill back in Moab and made a reservation for 9:00pm. Joey pulled out a reading to whet our conscience.
THE ART OF JUGGLING CORPSES. — Power concerns the organization, arrangement, and distribution of material objects in physical space. Whatever ideas and ideals are brought to bear on this process are necessarily corrupted and weighed down by their contact with decaying matter. Politics, in other words, is the art of juggling corpses and anyone whose highest value is power stinks of the grave." - Hans Abendroth, translated from German in 1972 by Bettina Muller
P7 (5.7 C2, 80')
P8 (5.8 A0, 100')
A short single-rope rappel to The Duck brought us to the start of the 3 rappel descent of the gully. I don't really want to describe this in full, but the first rappel rings are wildly low and unaccessible. We built a handline from cord to lower ourselves down to it and left the cord there. I hope it comes in handy for others.
The first rappel from The Duck is just about 110' (its short, yes...but don't keep going). The next is longer, maybe 180', and the final is short again, maybe 100'. Rocks fell everywhere. It was pretty heinous. There were random bolts everywhere so I suppose if you didn't flesh out the rap sequence well you could still get away with it rapping off of a single bolt or something of the like.
We then decided to disorganizedly gather our shit from the base and continue rappelling West from the base on the same route I'd done alone the previous day. Another 200' rappel and 50'er brought us to the main hiking trail on the West side of The Titan. Grounded.
On the long tired hike back after two days of dancing with the tower we all agreed that it was the most real climbing experience we'd ever had. Most modern rock climbs are vacuous symbols of adventure. In our cultural consciousness they represent adventure, yet with the excessive information, media, and guidebooks outlining the difficulty of each section, where the belays are supposed to be, what gear to bring, etc. they in some ways lack qualities that make adventures adventures. For me, good adventures don't have maps. In this way, what made this feel more real was that, although we had access to some information about the climb - two guidebooks and Mountain Project - each one said something different about each section of the climb. Sections that were A0 in one were A2 in the next. Each had the pitches broken down in different arrangements. Held together, we had a relatively useless jungle of information. And of course, there was some obvious adventure born out of having never aid climbed before.
Back at the parking lot it was dark and starry and we were sweating. Nothing about the attempt felt like a failure. We took our shirts off and stood with eyes closed and hands on our heads. I'm never fucking climbing that thing again. I think we'll be back.
Sit down bitch, be humble. - K.Dot
Aid Rating Reference:
- A0/C0: Pulling on solid protection, often without the use of aiders.
- A1/C1: Easy aid. No risk of any piece of protection falling out. Safe falls.
- A2/C2: Moderate aid. Short sections of tenuous placements above good protection.
- A2+/C2+: May include easier A3 moves but is not as hard enough to be rated as such.
- A3/C3: Hard aid. Involves many tenuous placements in a row.
- A4/C4: Runout, complex, and time-consuming. Many bodyweight placements.
- A5/C5: Seriously hard aid. Huge falls with lethal results.
[Note: An "A" means that unremovable gear (bolts, pitons, etc.) must be used. A "C" means that it may be climbed entirely with gear that may be cleaned by a follower.]